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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

August 12, 2016

Frustrated that the State Department has yet to take action on the Columbia River Treaty, 22 members of the Northwest congressional delegation on Aug. 11 sent another letter—the third—to Secretary of State John Kerry urging action. “We write to express concern about the U.S. Department of State’s slow progress toward modernizing” the treaty, stated the letter, which was coordinated through the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

It’s been more than two-and-half-years since BPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after a multiyear collaboration with the Sovereign Review Team, finalized the nine principles in the Northwest’s Regional Recommendation on the future of the treaty. Since then, the delegation has sent two letters—one in April 2014 and another in April 2015—unsuccessfully asking the administration to open negotiations with Canada. Regional officials were encouraged in fall 2015 when State appointed Brian Doherty, a senior foreign service officer, as chief negotiator for modernization of the treaty. Doherty made a number of initial contacts with regional officials late last year and reportedly made a good impression on them.

Doherty also toured treaty-related sites, and has continued to organize nearly monthly technical meetings with tribes, power groups and even some Canadians. However, he has held no public meetings, and State has repeatedly declined formal requests by Clearing Up to interview Doherty.

Northwest officials worry that the longer it takes to begin negotiations, the longer the region will continue with coordinated river operations of limited value and an obligation to return to Canada a share of power generated in the U.S., which under treaty terms comes to about 450 aMW of energy and 1,300 MW of capacity, while the actual current value is estimated by BPA to be 90 aMW and zero MW of capacity.

According to the latest letter, State promised to begin negotiations in 2016. “Unfortunately, more than seven months into 2016 the negotiating parameters that are a prerequisite for formal negotiations still have not been approved by the U.S. Department of State. We have been told for many months that this document, known as a Circular 175, is almost complete.”

However, a related press release noted that while State “has insisted for months” the process “was nearly complete, there have been no indications” that it “is close to approving the document.” In previous letters, the Northwest congressional delegation asked the administration to begin negotiations with Canada in 2015.

In the current letter, the delegation asked Kerry to “conclude the review process, approve the Circular 175 immediately, and press Canada to appoint a lead negotiator and engage in negotiations,” all of which must take place before negotiations can begin. They also want to meet in person with Kerry to discuss his progress, after Congress returns in September.

The press release notes that time “is running out” for the Obama administration. While there is regional sentiment that the impending change in administrations will inevitably slow down State’s progress, some feel the work is sufficiently deep within the bureaucracy that it will not be seriously impacted.

Meanwhile, BPA appears to have lowered its expectations about how fast work on the treaty will take place. “We are aware that the State Department continues to work to get the formal engagement with Canada underway,” BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer said in a statement to Clearing Up. “This is taking more time than folks anticipated.”

Cantwell is reported to be especially frustrated not only with State, but with Canada as well. Last March, she obtained a commitment from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion to appoint a Canadian negotiator (CU No. 1739 [14]), but no one has been named so far. The topic also came up in June, when Cantwell met with Canadian Ambassador to
the U.S. David MacMaughton.

Jim Heffernan, policy analyst with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), said, “Everyone in the basin is in agreement that we wish the Circular 175 process had been completed last year. So, we’re a little frustrated with that.” But he thinks the new letter “will go a long way to shaking the tree at the State Department.”

Canadian officials have indicated to him it won’t take them anywhere near as long to get rolling once the Americans say they’re ready, and that they can get authority to negotiate in a couple of months. Heffernan also said the most critical deadline is September 2024, when treaty flood-control provisions expire. The annual assured operating plans that determine benefits are initiated six years in advance, and an agreement to set those benefits through 2024 is in place.

However, he said, “the tribes want to see the region engage in a collaborative modeling approach that integrates flood-control management, ecosystem-based function and a reliable, sustainable power system before we get to 2024 so we can avoid a situation” in which flood-control provisions automatically default to so-called “effective use” and “called upon” protocols. The delays put a timely collaboration at risk, he said.

Heffernan said tribal leaders have also been frustrated because they have not been able to arrange a “principals” meeting with members of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group since late in 2013. If they’d done so by now, “we could have pushed State harder to get the Circular 175 done.”

Although staffs have met, and another principals meeting nearly came together in early 2015, logistical issues arose, and since then the power group has asked for a “pause” on plans for a meeting. Heffernan said tribal leaders are anxious to get together so they can talk about an agenda on how to work together to advance the Regional Recommendation before negotiations start.

Jessica Matlock, Snohomish PUD governmental relations director and spokesperson for the Columbia River Treaty Power Group—which includes 85 Northwest utilities—said the delay has been “disappointing,” adding, “Our ratepayers lose money every day without having this resolved.” She said the group had been hopeful “we could get this started before the new administration starts.”

As for CRITFC tribal leaders’ desire to meet with Power Group principals, Matlock said its refusal to set a meeting is not for any lack of respect for the tribes’ positions and co-management of the river. Rather, she said, “There are so many electric utilities working together that we want to make sure we are comfortable with our positions as well, and we want to focus on the number one priority: getting Canada at the table with the State Department to start negotiations.”

Matlock noted the group has assigned a liaison who has met regularly with the tribes, but “we don’t want to talk details because we are still running our own analyses internally to figure out what scenarios are correct for our ratepayers and the Columbia River system.”

The delegation emphasized these and other extensive impacts of delaying treaty negotiations. “Treaty modernization and negotiations with Canada directly affect the economy, environment, and flood control needs of communities we represent in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana along over 1,200 miles of the Columbia River and its tributaries,” the delegation told Kerry. The Columbia River “plays a critical role in the economy and culture of each of our states, and potential management changes initiated through the Treaty could have major impacts far into the future.”

Besides Cantwell, other Washington delegation members signing the letter were Sen. Patty Murray and Reps. Adam Smith, Dennis Heck, Jim McDermott, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Suzan DelBene, Dan Newhouse, Dave Reichert, Derek Kilmer and Rick Larsen.

From Oregon were Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden. Montana signatories were Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Ryan Zinke. Rep. Mike Simpson, from Idaho, also signed

[Ben Tansey].

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